New regular feature: Kartography

I’ve always been fascinated by karting games.

Ever since I got the original Super Mario Kart 26 years ago, I’ve always been tickled by the idea of countless developers and publishers imitating the formula with any group of licensed characters they can get their hands on.

What makes it interesting to me is that the karting genre – maybe more than any other – has continued to stick to a solid set of rules that’s almost always the same across the board.

Cups consisting of four or five races. Boost starts. Weapons, some going forwards, some going back, some homing. Maybe a power slide or drift mechanic. Unlockable tracks or characters. The vast majority of karting games tick all those boxes.

What intrigues me, then, is seeing how developers take a wide variety of licensed IPs and try to pour each one into this rigid mould, with the success of the resulting creation varying wildly.

Every time a new karting game comes out, then, I can’t help being interested to try it out. Even though the vast majority are utter piss, I’m always curious to see how each IP is treated and how the developers managed to shoehorn it into strict karting game guidelines.

Sometimes it’s a hit: Star Wars Episode I Racer was a no-brainer. And sometimes – most of the time, actually – it doesn’t work quite so well (step forward, Crazy Frog Racer).

Kartography, then, is my new regular series dedicated to mapping out the world of karting games over the past three decades.

In each instalment, I’ll be taking a game and breaking it down into its key components – the licence, the characters, the vehicles, the tracks, the power-ups and how fun it is to play – to determine where it ranks in the overall karting game world.

Unusually for Tired Old Hack, I’m also going to be scoring these games. It won’t be your normal percentage nonsense, though: it’s going to be a special score out of 40, made up of various components. The best scoring games, then, will be the ones that perform well in each of the categories I’ll be judging them on.

Each article will also contain screenshots and videos I’ve personally captured from the game running on actual consoles, which means you won’t be getting stuff like this shit upscaled, emulated and stretched one I nicked from Google

The first instalment will be going up this weekend, but I thought you’d find this intro article useful. It’s going to discuss each element of what makes a karting game, and what I’m going to be looking out for each time.

The licence

(scored out of 5)
First thing first, before we move on to the game itself, I take a look at the licence that’s getting the karting treatment in the first place.

Securing a big licence that people care about is important: would you rather play a game with Disney characters in it, or one with characters from ‘80s cartoon The Family Ness? Actually, don’t answer that.

Although it’s not a huge factor, playing a game with authentic characters, locations and music you’re familiar with can still increase enjoyment.

What I’m looking for:
How ‘big’ is the licence? Is it well-known globally, or would it just appeal to a single country?

Is it a ‘fun’ licence that’s a natural fit for gaming, or is it something that gamers wouldn’t care about were it not for the fact it’s being shoehorned into a karting game?

After all, Coca Cola is a huge brand, but nobody would care about a karting tie-in where all the drivers were Coke polar bears.

The racers

Power Rangers Neo, anyone?

(scored out of 5)
Most licences live or die by their characters, and in karting games it’s important to not only have a wide selection, but ones people care about.

Mario Kart thrives because Mario isn’t the only important character there: most of them have their own fanbases.

On the other hand, look at Diddy Kong Racing: when it launched, Diddy Kong was the only character people knew. Although the likes of Banjo and Conker eventually got their own games, at the time they were all complete unknowns.

What I’m looking for:
Are there a lot of playable characters in the game? Are a lot of them well-known, or is there a lot of filler in there just to make the roster bigger?

Do the characters have unique personalities – voice acting, different animations, unique special moves – or are they essentially just the same character with a different model?

If there are lesser known characters in there, are they at least given the same care and attention as the main ones? Sometimes that can work in a licence’s favour and make fringe characters more popular. Does each character have different stats?

The vehicles

Minnie The Minx’s scooter in Beanotown Racing is the sort of thing I’m looking for here

(scored out of 5)
Good luck making a karting game without vehicles.

Naturally, most of the time we’re talking karts, but sometimes titles that still technically count as karting games will go for planes, boats, cars or even ditch vehicles altogether and go with a foot race instead (case in point: Sonic R).

While vehicle designs don’t make or break the experience, a game that takes the time to make the vehicles as interesting as the characters driving them always get a thumbs up in my book.

What I’m looking for:
Is there a variety of vehicles available, or does everyone drive the same basic kart?

Does each character have their own specific vehicle designed to fit their personality? Is there an option to choose between multiple vehicles? Can they be upgraded, tweaked or customised in any way?

The tracks

(scored out of 5)
You can have the greatest characters in the world and put them in bad-ass vehicles, but if you’re then going to dump them into a generic asphalt race track surrounded by grass your game’s still going to be a tiny bit piss.

Kart games generally tend to go in one of two directions when it comes to tracks: either they’re based on actual locations from the licenses in question, or they’re more generic efforts that could technically be used in any karting game (a circuit, a beach, an ice course and so on).

What I’m looking for:
How many tracks are there in total (including locked ones)? Are the tracks relevant to the licence? If so, are they all memorable locations, or is it clear that the developers ran out of good ones and started using locations that appeared in one scene in a single episode?

Do the course layouts have interesting features – bridges, shortcuts, obstacles – or are they flat, characterless tracks? Does the total number of tracks include multiple ones set in the same location (City Course 1, City Course 2, City Course 3 for example)?

The power-ups

The Saddam Hussein ‘spooky vision’ in South Park Rally is a good example of an original one, especially because it came before the Blooper ink power-up in Mario Kart

(scored out of 5)
Super Mario Kart didn’t just introduce the idea of familiar characters racing around in karts. It also introduced the idea of these characters being able to collect different weapons and items, and use them against their opponents.

The vast majority of kart games have followed Super Mario Kart’s lead, and practically every one has its own equivalents to the standard Mario Kart weapon layout.

There’s almost always one that flies forward (the green shell), one you can drop behind you (the banana), one that homes in on your nearest opponent (the red shell) and so on.

What I’m looking for:
How many power-ups are in the game? Do they tend to do the same thing as weapons in a Mario Kart game?

Are there any interesting ones that do something unique (i.e. something that hasn’t been done in Mario Kart)? Are the weapons related to the licence, or are they just generic missiles, oil slicks and the like?

Are they actually fun to use, or do they feel like they’ve just been dumped in there because – as it’s a karting game – they have to be in there?

How it plays

(scored out of 15)
Finally, after all’s said and done, there’s the most important factor: is the game actually fun to play?

This part of the article will essentially be a mini-review, covering anything else I haven’t already: game modes, handling, potential rubber-banding, anything I’d deem relevant to include in a review.

Since this is the most important element, I’ll be scoring it out of 15, meaning a game with weak characters and tracks can still get a half decent score if its underlying racing engine is still solid.

This section will also come with a short video review, in which I’ll show some gameplay footage I’ve captured along with a voiceover essentially recapping what I’ve written in this section. Just to liven things up a bit and let you actually see the game in action.

The verdict

At this point everything’s added up:

The licence (5)
The characters (5)
The vehicles (5)
The tracks (5)
The power-ups (5)
How it plays (15)

…and the game is given a total score out of 40. It will then be placed on my ever-evolving Kartography leaderboard, where over time we’ll start to see which karting games belong on which tier of the hierarchy.

That’s about it. The general aim is to have the same feel as features in old ‘90s magazines, so expect a lot of boxout-type bits. The character section, for example, will feature profiles of every character in the game, and all the tracks, vehicles and power-ups will get their own screenshots.

In short, I want these to be fun to read, and with all the screens and the video review section I want it to be as visually entertaining as it will be to read.

I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. I’ll be kicking off later this weekend with Hello Kitty Kruisers on Switch and Wii U, so keep an eye out for that and please do let me know what you think of it.


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